Note: This is a guest post by Michael Rank of History in Five Minutes Podcast
In the late 1800s, a doctor visited a wealthy couple in New York to examine their sickly son. He was severely asthmatic, a condition often fatal in those days. Dr. Dudley Sargent told him that due to this condition and his weak heart, failure to lead a quiet life would result in death.
Theodore Roosevelt’s father disagreed with this diagnosis. He took his son aside and told him that sitting idly in one’s weakness was no way to live: “Theodore, you have the mind but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. I am giving you the tools, but it is up to you to make your body.”
He agreed. After Sargent told him the grim prognosis, young Theodore shot back as follows: “Doctor, I’m going to do all the things you tell me not to do. If I’ve got to live the sort of life you have described, I don’t care how short it is.”
Roosevelt made good on his word. He and his father built a gym in his house, where he practiced weight lifting and boxing. Roosevelt soon developed a rugged physique and established a lifelong habit of exercise and purposefully straining himself. He joined the rowing team at Harvard. During his European honeymoon a year after graduation, he took a detour and scaled the 15,000-foot Matterhorn in Switzerland. Other careers of his that required physical hardiness were cattle rancher, deputy sheriff, explorer, war hero, and police commissioner. He loved boxing and won Harvard’s intramural lightweight championship. Roosevelt continued to spar throughout his political career, even during his days in the White House. One day he boxed a young artillery officer, who smashed a blood vessel in his eye. Roosevelt remained nearly blind in his left eye.
This was only the beginning of Roosevelt’s highly productive life. In the years to come he became the first American to earn a belt in judo, led expeditions into the Amazon and Africa, and read hours a day. He wrote 38 books, including a biography of Oliver Cromwell, a history of New York City, the four-volume series “The Winning of the West,” and an autobiography. For good measure he also won a Nobel Peace Prize and became at age 42 the youngest president in American history.
How did he accomplish so much in his life? There are three reasons.
1. He Seized Initiative.
According to a colleague, Roosevelt’s motto was “action, action, and more action.” He took the reins of whatever task in which he was engaged and moved rapidly once he determined what needed to be done. Roosevelt understood the value of taking the initiative from his study of military history. The first mover held the advantages, set the terms of engagement, and could surprise an enemy who rested on his laurels.
An episode from 1884 illustrates this trait. His wife died in childbirth, and his mother died of typhoid on the same day in the same house. To begin a new chapter in his life he moved West to work as a cowboy. A man had intentions on Roosevelt’s ranch. He hired a killer named Paddock to get rid of him. Hearing of this, Roosevelt armed himself and rode over to Paddock’s residence to end the situation immediately. He said: “I understand you have threatened to kill me on sight. I have come over to see when you want to begin the killing.”
Paddock did not bother him again.
2. He Read Non-Stop.
Roosevelt always carried a book with him, whether enforcing the law in the Dakota Badlands or sitting in the Oval Office. Throughout his life, Roosevelt read an average of five books a week. He read frequently due to his belief that efficiency did not come from packing in scheduled activities down to every last minute of the day. Rather, it was through the regular feeding of the intellect. Even during the height of a presidential campaign, he packed in nearly four hours of reading a day. He enjoyed works of fiction, science, political philosophy, and history.
Roosevelt was nominated for William McKinley’s vice presidency in 1900. Here is an outline of his daily schedule. It shows how he was able read so much despite his persistent busyness.
7:00 AM Breakfast
7:30 AM A speech
8:00 AM Reading a historical work
9:00 AM A speech
10:00 AM Dictating letters
11:00 AM Discussing Montana mines
11:30 AM A speech
12:00 PM Reading an ornithological work
12:30 PM A speech
1:00 PM Lunch
1:30 PM A speech
2:30 PM Reading Sir Walter Scott
3:00 PM Answering telegrams
3:45 PM A speech
4:00 PM Meeting the press
4:30 PM Reading
5:00 PM A speech
6:00 PM Reading
7:00 PM Supper
8-10 PM Speaking
11:00 PM Reading alone in his car
12:00 AM To bed.
Besides reading a lot, Roosevelt also read everything. He enjoyed Sir Walter Scott and ornithology along with historical anthologies or Greek classics.
A more shallow approach to learning would dictate that one only read books in his or her profession. Roosevelt would have taken a bayonet to such an idea. His diverse reading made him informed on nearly any subject in conversation. It also allowed him to add creativity to whatever job he held. Roosevelt’s knowledge of the natural world, for example, influenced his decision to create the United States Forest Service and establish five new national parks. He began the Wildlife Refuge System and set aside 42 million acres for national forests and areas of special interest, such as the Grand Canyon.
3. He Had Great Resilience.
One of the most famous examples of his tenacity was suffering an assassination attempt at a campaign event, then proceeding to give an hour-and-a-half-long speech. The story goes that an assassin, an unemployed saloonkeeper, trailed him for three weeks through eight states during the 1912 presidential election. Roosevelt was a candidate for the newly-formed Bull Moose Party. As he entered his car outside the Gilpatrick Hotel, he stood up in the open-air vehicle and waved his hat to the crowd. The assassin saw his chance, took out his Colt revolver, and fired. The bullet hit Roosevelt and ran three inches into his chest. It passed through a jacket pocket containing his steel eyeglass case and copy of his 50-page speech, which was folded in half. Although blood seeped into Roosevelt’s shirt, he concluded as an anatomist that the bullet had not penetrated the chest wall into his lung because he was not coughing blood.
He then went on to orate for the next 90 minutes. Roosevelt’s nervous aides begged him to stop speaking and tried to surround him at the podium to catch him if he passed out. They backed off when he shot daggers at them. By the end of the speech his voice weakened and his breath shortened, but only at its conclusion did he agree to go to the hospital.
While Roosevelt possessed far more physical and mental energy than the average person, his lessons of productivity are many and worth considering today. Above all, he advocated continuous action and forward movement. The worst thing for a person to do, he said, was not to make the wrong decision, but be fraught with indecision. Nothing good could ever come of that: “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
Michael Rank is a doctoral candidate in history. He is the author of 12 books and host of the History in Five Minutes Podcast. His new book is called The Most Productive People in History: 18 Extraordinarily Prolific Inventors, Artists, and Entrepreneurs, From Archimedes to Elon Musk